Wrestling

“This is a bit of Carnival”: Pantomime and Wrestling

[Merry Christmas! Speaking of virgin births, here’s a post I wrote a while back on Tumblr.]

Mae Young gave birth to a giant hand, while the Pope gave birth to a baby.
Mae Young gave birth to a giant hand, while the Pope gave birth to a baby.

Elites and intellectuals tend to see themselves as the creators of communal identity, but popular performances like wrestling have always been a conduit of the common person’s power. Wrestling is a powerful cultural force amongst the powerless. Wrestling is at its best when it celebrates the ability and worth of the powerless—children, the working-class, minorities, and (increasingly) women.

While I was grading a bunch of History 101 essays on the dual rise of Japan and the United States during the early 20th century, Taylor pushed my old “Sit Down and Enjoy the Goddam Show!” post about the rise and fall of the WWE’s Attitude Era. Honestly, if it weren’t for Taylor this post (and others) wouldn’t have gotten any attention, so thanks for pushing me over the moon, T!

I just finished reading Mike at ironcladfolly‘s wonderful response to my post. If you haven’t done so, you should read it. He does a much better job than I did breaking down the shift to the PG era and the significance of the Attitude Era.

His article brought to mind a documentary I saw on Netflix yesterday entitled “Mystery Files: Pope Joan.” Basically, it’s about an 8th or 9th-century pope who was reputed to be a woman. The Catholic Church’s chronicles state that she occupied the Papacy for two years, at which point she fell off a horse during a processional and gave birth to or miscarried a child. Much of the documentary is about whether or not Pope Joan even existed and, if so, how much of it is accurate. One historian (who asserts that the story is untrue) argues that the dramatic—and literal—fall of Joan serves a theatrical purpose:

“Joan giving birth really adds to the pantomime quality of the story enormously. I think it is the one thing that makes you absolutely sure that one isn’t meant to take this seriously. This is a bit of carnival.”

I immediately realized that this statement has everything to do with popular performances including wrestling. Many fans walked away from wrestling during the Attitude Era. Why? Ironcladfolly hits the nail on the head when he writes that “even the elements of the product that relied on spectacle had changed. Edginess had been replaced by silliness, and audiences weren’t expected to be ‘in on the joke’ to appreciate it.” The WWE lost sight of the art, pantomime, and carnival that is wrestling.

To really unpack the appeal of wrestling, we should take a step back and look at as something bigger than the events we see on television. This is difficult to do because the WWE’s rise to dominance has been so complete. The company is now synonymous with the art form. Really, the WWE took over wrestling due to the very fact that Vince and Linda treated it as a modern business enterprise while their competitors were still thinking in barn-storming and carnivalistic terms. The McMahons’s have created an environment where wrestling is often referred to as “the business” or “the industry.” It has become an international rather than local enterprise. As a result, we fans tend to digest story lines in business terms. We see pushes/burials and storyline swerves as Vince attempting to tap a new market. This isn’t completely inaccurate, but I think there’s more to it.

For one, enjoying wrestling is almost always reliant on the willful suspension of disbelief. This is why people who attempts to deconstruct wrestling are consider smarks and kill-joys. This is because the audience understands that, deep down, it is an active part of the performance. We know that our willingness to serve as “marks” and “smarks” directly effects the actions of the “faces” and “heels” we inhabit the circus tent with. We know that the ring and arena are share spaces, and we understand that we are part of the spectacle. This is the essence of popular performance. This is why Randy the Ram was willing to die in the ring in “The Wrestler.” This is why my friend went to Wrestlemania XX when he was diagnosed with cancer. This is why sick kids want to meet John Cena and Daniel Bryan as they fight for their lives. This is why broken down wrestlers call the carnival that is wrestling “coming home.” This is why people love the intimacy of indie wrestling.

The reason most wrestlers and fans dislike the stereotypical smarks is because their cynicism and arrogance betray the beauty of the art. I believe that the reason a lot of people dislike the Attitude Era is because the WWE turned its back on its carnival roots and became a smark. Just as the society that enters a long war always emerges as something different, the WWE came out of its war with the WCW as a funhouse reflection of its old self. Think the transition from the Old Republic to the Empire, or America Pre-9/11 to America Post-Patriot Act. In any case, wrestling lost itself and became a business model. It lost sight of its artist side and doubled-down on the idea that muscles, violence, and sex sell. What it forgot was that conscious pantomime and self-awareness made the vulgarity, homophobia, misogyny, and excess palatable. It became Jerry Springer when it was rooted were something so much more important.

During the course of Project Generico, I’ve learned that wrestling has the power to create as sense of community. It contributed to a sense of Southern identity during the late-20th century. It helped create a Jewish sense of community among poor Jews in Warsaw before World War I. It strengthened a sense of Japanese masculine and feminine virility after World War II. Elites and intellectuals tend to see themselves as the creators of communal identity, but popular performances like wrestling have always been a conduit of the common person’s power. Wrestling is a powerful cultural force amongst the powerless. Wrestling is at its best when it celebrates the ability and worth of the powerless—children, the working-class, minorities, and (increasingly) women.

The Attitude Era tapped into that, but it was more lip than substance. It treated the audience as consumers, not participants. I celebrate its demise and I look forward to the carnival.

(Hopefully, that makes sense…I’m pretty tired.)

Allan Branstiter is a writer and Ph.D. student studying U.S. History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Currently residing in Los Angeles, California, he is writing a dissertation examining the experiences of Civil War veterans in the American West. He is a veteran of the Iraq War and a former candidate for the North Dakota State Senate.

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